Education: The SSAWG Conference and the Permaculture Teacher
I was at the SSAWG (Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group) Conference in Chatanooga in 2009. I was fortunate to acquire a scholarship from SARE to cover the costs of the conference as well as the cost of travel and lodging.
Some of my friends went the following year, but I didn’t go. I enjoyed the 2009 conference very much, but most of the classes I took and thoroughly enjoyed were geared for farmers on 10 acres or more. I am a Homestead Farmer, living and working on an acre of land. Though I don’t really have the space for real pasture land I find pasture management fascinating, so I really enjoyed listening to how a dairy man at the Happy Cow Creamery saved his family dairy in South Carolina by learning how to manage pastures and rotate cattle. He says he became a grass farmer and the rest fell into place. He increased his yields, and decreased his inputs, and was finally able to leave the farm for a vacation from time to time. I also enjoyed a mushroom growing presentation by Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain in South Carolina.
My friend Linda from Crazy Hart Ranch was going to attend the SSAWG Conference this year (2011) and she was offering to share her hotel room with me. I checked out the schedule of classes and found that SSAWG had begun to recognize the need to reach out to much smaller urban and suburban farmers. I saw that there was a Permaculture class offered, and a focus group for urban farmers.
They had me at Permaculture. I signed up for the SSAWG Conference. Linda, and our friend Renee and I shared the cost of a rental car, and a room. We had a great time. We met up with our friend and Indian River Cooperative Extension Agent Christine Kelly-Begazo and shared some meals and some spare minutes together.
On Friday and Saturday the schedule is full of 90 minute courses, mostly presented by farmers, some co-presented by extension agents and farmers. and some USDA scientists as well as people who specialize in knowing or influencing government policy for family farms, and then inform farmers on how to take advantage of various farm bill programs. I took another Tradd Cotter mushroom growing class. It was as ever, fun and informational and always packed. I filled all of my time with various other classes and meetings and a few quick spins around the exhibition floor. My favorite class by far was the Permaculture course offered Thursday. That was a 4 hour course about permaculture presented by (entirely) sustainable, off the grid farmer Susana Lein.
Later that weekend I approached Susana about visiting her farm. She said we were welcome to visit, but warned that she wasn’t sure she would have all of her customary crops going in favor of freeing up some time for infrastructure building, specifically, structure building.
I got home from the SSAWG Conference Sunday night. The next morning was a glorious crisp and sunny January morning here in South Florida, and while watering the garden I was mulling over the weekend’s activities, and my mind rested on Susana Lein, and how cold it had been in Chattanoga, and how cold it must be where she was on her farm 4 hours north of Chattanooga, and I wondered if she might really like a Florida vacation. I asked my husband how he felt about inviting Susana to spend some time here, he shrugged his indifference, and I called her up.
Susana came to visit!
It was an awesome visit. She was able to stay 2 weeks, and in that time we shared lots of fresh food from the garden, as well as food she brought from her farm including pinto and black beans, popcorn, cornmeal, garlic, herbs, and an acorn squash, all of which she fit into her luggage for the plane trip down to Florida. When I said I wanted to build a cart for my chickens she set about drawing a design that night, and the next day we began to build the chicken cart, or Chick Mahal as my friend JoEllen calls it. With the exception of the solid wheel barrow wheels and the hardware cloth we built the chick Mahal from all found and discarded lumber I had been saving, and some of our extra hurricane panels (we used for the roof). Susana booked two Permaculture classes at Heathcote Botanical Gardens for while she was in town, and filled them both. Meanwhile, we made yogurt, sprouted seeds and beans for my chickens, and she guided me on with which foods I had in the house and in the garden that I could use to supplement their foraging. With her help I got my chickens off of bagged feed altogether. We visited several farms close by including Crazy Hart Ranch, Gibbon’s Organic Farm, Funky Chicken Farm, and Susana connected with some permaculture friends in East Central Florida (Brevard County) including John Rogers who recently began changing his amazing bamboo forest into an equally amazing food forest. Susana also visited our no till organic garden at Heathcote Botanical Gardens, and lent a hand helping us to complete our work for the day.
My husband and I got an excellent friend in Susana. We thoroughly enjoyed having her with us, and I learned a tremendous amount of new things including simple ways to save energy, like for instance piling simmering pots one atop another to diminish the number of burners that need to be lit for cooking. We learned that chickweed in Kentucky is a succulent addition to a salad while chickweed in Florida is an edible leaf with a not so pleasant fuzzy coating. We ate lots to make certain. Fortunately my chickens are not as sensitive. They enjoy eating the chick weed that grows here in Florida!
After two whirlwind weeks in Florida Susana flew back to Kentucky in time to present her class in Bowling Grreen, and once back on the farm put 5,000 onion plants into the ground. She is gone for now, but in our everyday lives we notice the differences Susana made. I am wondering how to get myself up to her farm this summer, and hoping she finds her way south once again when it is too cold for farming in Berea.